I Just Go Tumbling
I’ve thought about it a million times.
It takes all my strength just to keep it calm.
I hove to tell myself, just let it breathe,
holding it inside will only help to do me in.
—The Gits, “Second Skin”
It’s never done. I think once we got the killer, that gave a different ending to my movie but it was really when I felt the story was flowing more, when it was really getting to the heart of who Mia was and you get to feel that.
—Kerri O’Kane, 2008
“There has not been anything like them since them.” This assessment of the Gits might sound like so much hype—except that it’s true. Like other talking heads appearing in Kerri O’Kane’s The Gits, Tim Sommer, formerly of Atlantic Records’ A&R, describes the band using superlatives, personal memories mingled with the collective thrill generated by their live performances. The documentary doesn’t just rely on commentary: it opens with footage of a performance of “Whirlwind,” revealing instantly why the band is remembered so fondly and so vividly. “When I woke up this morning, I was dizzy in my brain,” sings Mia Zapata. “The wagon’s shaking, I feel it starting to tilt.”
Seductive and stirring, Zapata’s gritty vocals and physical urgency are clear enough even in this brief grainy footage. Thankfully, the movie provides other opportunities to hear her, some footage borrowed from Doug Pray’s excellent documentary Hype. In fact, The Gits provides another angle on the same scene: where Pray’s movie looks at the national emergence-implosion of grunge, the effects of exposure and commodification on an amazing local scene, O’Kane focuses on the tragedy of the Gits, their exciting rise and terrible end when 27-year-old Zapata was murdered in 1993.
Most anyone paying attention to grunge beyond Nirvana and Eddie Vedder knew about the Gits. The film, at once respectful and rousing, covers the basics facts of their development, from a group of friends who formed a band at Antioch to an up-and-coming force in Seattle, with special attention to Zapata’s intensity. “What I knew of my daughter,” remembers her dad Richard Zapata, “was that she was really quiet, really shy, the last person who would call attention to herself. And yet, put a microphone in her hand and she was magnetic.” Indeed. Valerie Agnew, drummer for 7 Year Bitch recalls that with the band’s first performances on campus in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Zapata “commanded respect and interest immediately.” Seattle housemate and DC Beggars’ guitarist Julian Gibson notes, “They were bringing something else to the table that no one else around here has.” Punk but not quite, rock and blues and soul smashed together, the Gits inspired love and loyalty among fans and other artists. They made music that expressed pain and valued triumph. Guitarist Andy Kesslar would compose tunes or pieces, Zapata would head into her bedroom to conjure lyrics, culled from her notebooks. Ann Powers describes a special relationship between soulmates: “Their connection,” she says, “was in the music.”
Naming themselves after a Monty Python skit, the band considered themselves friends first and a band second, of a piece with the proudly and passionately amateur ethos many musicians embraced at the time. For all their distinctiveness, when the Gits moved west, they also found a community of like-minded artists, eager to share ideas and energies, resulting in memorable group shows and compilation CDs. As 7 Year Bitch singer Selene Vigil puts it, “Everybody was kind of on the same level, coming from the same place. Gits Drummer Steve Moriarty adds, “You decided you were gonna do it, you started from scratch, and you just did it. And that’s how things happened.” Amid the nostalgia for the scene, the movie features exhilarating examples of the Gits’ work together, including performances of “Wingo Lamo,” “Here’s to Your Fuck” (the title “stolen,” says Kesslar happily, from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet), the superb “Seaweed,” and the “catchy” “Second Skin.”
While the Hype footage is more professional (clearer imagery, more cameras, more cuts), even the rough images demonstrate Zapata’s terrific élan, whether dressed in a court jesters costume or in cut-off jeans shorts and black tights. She’s fierce, intelligent, and mesmerizing, and for these stretches of film—some near-complete songs—you feel lucky just to see her, even at such distance, in such a limiting format.
For all its celebration of the band’s brilliance and Zapata’s legacy, The Gits must also grapple with her horrific rape and murder, still unsolved when the film started production. (Over its decade of irresolution, the case was the subject of pop-crime TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries, AMW, and 48 Hours Mystery.) While other sorts of death and loss are better known and even sensationalized among musicians (as was the case with 7 Year Bitch’s Stefanie Sergeant, who died of a heroin overdose), Zapata’s murder was shocking. The Gits notes that both the crime and ensuing investigation affected the music scene: Vigil recalls male friends being questioned by police, Kathleen Hanna and Joan Jett talk about the aftermath for women in the Seattle area and in punk more broadly, as they put together a show to raise money for a private detective and also fund Home Alive, a Seattle-based organization that to this day teaches women self-defense techniques.
The film handles the 2003 arrest of Jesus Mezquia with apposite restraint. Caught and convicted with DNA evidence preserved from the 1993 crime scene, the killer appears briefly and indistinctly in a Seattle courtroom, with visual emphasis on family and friends’ reactions. While Vigil expresses a wholly understandable revulsion (“Seeing his face for the first time was a truly evil experience,” she says, “This was the last person that she saw?”), Moriarty, who worked hard over the years to raise money to solve the case, articulates an almost existential response: “I pitied him that I hated him so much.”
Though it takes up relatively little time in the film, Zapata’s murder overshadows everything, as it has overshadowed experiences of her friends, family, and fans since 1993. The Gits rightly situates her alongside her bandmates (her gravestone identifies her as daughter, sister, and Git), and the final performance on screen is “Precious Blood,” Mia Zapata railing again and forever against pain and loss: “Don’t know how long it’s / Gonna take,” she sings, “but I’m gonna / Need need need a little more / One day.”